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TELEVISION

‘Smash’ on NBC: What show are they watching?

Bernadette Peters (left) and Megan Hilty in “Smash.” (Photo by Eric Liebowitz/NBC)

From: Wesley Morris

Sent: Monday, March 19, 2012 11:22 p.m.

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To: Joanna Weiss and Sarah Rodman

Subject: What show are *they* watching?

Gang, we’ve moved on to episode seven, and I have to tell you that I’m a huge fan of anything in which people glamour-blast through thrown-open doors. That might be yet another way of saying I love this show — or once loved it. In the first minute, open swings a door. Then six minutes later another door flies open and it’s ... Bernadette Peters! She plays Ivy’s mother, a domineering Broadway star, and she proceeds to turns the gay men gay and the women gayer when they shamelessly beg her to do “Everything’s Coming up Roses,” which is a song that really needs its show to seem great. Otherwise it was like pledge week, but on NBC.

Earlier, Karen went into a studio to sing what sounds like track 4 on an imaginary new Rebecca Black record. In four minutes, the producer or engineer or whoever leans forward at the soundboard in that way that says, “I’m hearing magic and beachfront property.” I heard a song certain to nauseate spin classes at every Healthworks in America. And how many shots do we need of Ellis magically overhearing Julia and Michael’s trysting? Why is he always facing the camera? He’s missing the actual action. Does he have eyes in the back of his skinny curls? I liked it better when he was sexually confusing me. Now he’s just the Chinese housekeeper in 1930s detective fiction.

Strange that it took having Peters around to get Anjelica Huston some better writing and to give that dude from “General Hospital” something to do besides serve her budget martinis at his alleged dive. (I say “alleged” because at this dive, I can actually see the drinks.) Anyway, this is the workshop episode, in which the show’s potential backers sit in the front row and look like they’re about to make a mess all over themselves whenever Ivy sings. I’m not saying I don’t get it (I do). But they don’t have a compensatory laptop the way I do. Oddly, there are almost no reaction shots when Michael’s Joe DiMaggio gets his number, just Julia with really wet eyes, which I, at least, am willing to take as a metaphor. Will Chase is a sex bomb that detonates indiscriminately. You don’t wear a tuxedo to watch him. You wear Jeremy Renner’s outfit from “The Hurt Locker.”

So what did we learn this week? Well, for one thing, the only person giving a remotely human performance on this show is Emory Cohen, who plays Julia’s stoner son, Leo. Yes, he’s starring in an After School Special (“The Kid Who Puffed!”), but he’s remarkably good as Ye Olde Sullen Teen. Hopefully, Cohen can show the pathetically misused Brian D’Arcy James, who plays his dad, how it works.

Of course, this might be the week, you guys, where I get off the train. We keep having to watch Derek tell someone that Ivy is just OK and maybe she should be replaced with a bigger star. Exactly what show is he watching? The Ivy I see is a star. Any potential backer who leaves that workshop thinking anything else should just return to backing bad mortgages. When Ivy and Michael perform together, you want to hang a “do not disturb” sign around them. That brings me to how I officially know this casting premise makes the whole show a dubious idea: They’re threatening to get rid of Michael!

At least with Ivy, Tom, Julia, and Elaine push back and tell Derek he’s nuts. Apparently they’re also out of their minds. The solution to Julia’s infidelity is not to fire Michael. Axe him, and you have almost no show. I’m sure there’s some Broadway veterans and casting agents who think this aspect of the show rings true. I’d love to hear an explanation. Otherwise, in Megan Hilty and Will Chase, we’ve got two actors who might not be good enough to seem bad enough to warrant replacements. That’s too much unintended surrealism for 44 minutes of TV. Am I alone?

From: Joanna Weiss

Sent: Monday, March 19, 2012 11:22 p.m.

To: Wesley Morris and Sarah Rodman

Subject: What show are *they* watching?

Well, I have figured out what show I want to watch. It’s the show in which Katharine McPhee plays a crazy, moderately-talented stalker who is toiling in the chorus but fancies herself a star, and imagines her success in a series of grotesque fantasy sequences. I loved how Karen imagined herself singing Ivy’s parts — in Ivy’s voice! — and then got so distracted that she fell off the stage in front of the investors. It was high comedy, crazy and weird, and the only time McPhee has looked even vaguely theatrical. Maybe that’s the secret to “Smash”: It’s about Broadway, so the tricks only work if they play to the back of the theater.

That’s why Bernadette Peters, who is incapable of small gestures, worked as Ivy’s suddenly-materializing-Tony-award-winning mother, (Really? Nobody bothered to mention that Ivy’s a Broadway legacy? That’s way better than being the girl who slept with the director!) I think, to save this show, we’d need an influx of over-the-top theater stars. I hereby nominate Bebe Neuwirth as Karen’s evil aunt, and Nathan Lane as the mayor of New York. I am not kidding. Incidentally, there is no Julia character in the show I want to watch. There is also no Ellis. However, there is a Tom, and he has better gaydar.

Mandy Patinkin. He needs a role, too. Perhaps he could be the angel investor with a song in his heart. (But he would have to shave his “Homeland” beard.) And can we get Andrew Rannells in, just to serve everyone coffee?

From: Sarah Rodman

Sent: Monday, March 19, 2012 11:22 p.m.

To: Joanna Weiss and Wesley Morris

Subject: What show are *they* watching?

If they fire Will Chase, I’m exiting stage left. I know they wouldn’t actually be firing Will Chase, but the character. And the character has been maddeningly inconsistent, like a Broadway Sméagol: “I love my family!” “To hell with my family and career, I need you!” But Chase has sold it all, and he sounds fantastic. (And I have residual affection for him from “High Fidelity.”) I also thought the show looked great from what we saw of it — and I’m not much of a Marilyn Monroe buff — and it felt like every time Karen imagined herself in the part it was a major intrusion. (But if they can get Sutton Foster, by all means, see ya, Ivy!) I wish she had gone to meet the music producer and he’d whisked her away to rhythmic Top 40 glory.

But I have to say, all this “You’re in the chorus!” stuff from other members of the chorus? I’m not picking up what they’re putting down. Thousands of people compete for those jobs and are thrilled when they get them. The idea that they would sit around and badmouth the possibility of being in a Broadway show and to risk it all by going to a meeting with a record producer — no matter how fabulous and Mottola-like in his power — seems unlikely to me. Sticking with your commitments is just good business and good karma, and not a virtue exclusive to nice girls from Iowa. And although I agree “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” is better in context, I don’t care. Bernadette Peters still has the high heater. (And that’s said after having seen her sing it in the proper context.) It’s all a little on the nose, “Marilyn’s mother didn’t love her, you never loved me!” But hey, it’s a soap opera. I’ll let it slide.

Joanna, I like this other show idea. Let’s also cast Elaine Stritch as a boozy matron who is Karen’s most irascible regular customer at the restaurant and gives Karen’s advice to fan the flames of her insanity. And Ann Reinking can be the older woman Derek secretly is in love with. She constantly puts him down to push his buttons.

From: Wesley Morris

Sent: Monday, March 19, 2012 11:22 p.m.

To: Sarah Rodman and Joanna Weiss

Subject: What show are *they* watching?

OK, isn’t that what this show was supposed to be? With Tom at the center of a harem starring Norbert Leo Butz, Aaron Tveit, Michael Cerveris, Brian Stokes Mitchell, James Naughton, and Topol? And in the last episode we’d learn that the whole thing was just Julie Taymor having Audra Ann McDonald dreams. But seriously, isn’t the real disappointment of the show that, for a couple of episodes (and, subsequently, only here and there), you felt like Broadway was reminding the networks what else they could be, and this particular network is gradually retracting its bravery and sense of adventure?

Television is just as plastic and, perhaps, more absorptive than the movies. In some cases, it thinks bigger. But on “Smash” every week, with each new gaggle of suds, you can feel the thinking getting small and safe. That might be why we’ll soon change this channel in order to discuss the return of “Mad Men,” which, let it be said, fewer people watch than “Smash.”

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